Leslie Mummert of Bowie says she has an antidote to what she calls “nature deficit disorder” and — along with Bowie’s environmental advisory committee — is trying to convince the City Council to embrace her rustic remedy.
During a presentation to the council on June 7, Mummert advocated for the environmental committee’s recommendation of a Natural Recreation Area, a man-made play area where children can safely interact with natural elements like branches, stumps, rocks, leaves and structures or instruments made from natural material. The recreation area would be located at or near existing parks, so families who already visit the parks would be encouraged to use the area, Mummert said.
“The idea is that lots of kids are spending lots of their days indoors, and when they’re outside, it’s these regimented activities like sports,” she said. “[This would] allow them to have access to nature that is somewhat supervised [but would] also encourage free play.”
Mummert, who has two daughters younger than 10 years old, said she has visited natural recreation areas like the children’s garden at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton and noticed the Bowie area was missing a similar option.
“I would say it’s a gap in our infrastructure at the city level. We have playgrounds, we have beautiful turf fields, but we don’t have a lot of passive areas to interact with nature,” she said. “Most people, when they walk into something like Whitemarsh Park, aren’t going to go off the trails, and they’re really not encouraged to do that. So you’re not going to see kids running through the woods. There’s not a lot in the city itself that encourages that kind of play.”
Gary Allen, chairman of the environmental advisory committee, said the committee recommended such a play area to the council about a year ago.
“What we’ve recommended is an area roughly half the size of a football field be set aside, groomed and ultimately incorporate some of those natural exploration features,” he said. “What we’re asking the [Bowie city] staff to do is help select a location and ultimately provide a plan and ask the city to make an investment in taking that plan to the next level.”
Allen estimated the design and construction could be completed in two years and cost between $5,000 and $10,000. He said the next step will likely be a feasibility study conducted by city staff and a public hearing on the issue.
But not all the council members are convinced the natural play area is a necessary feature for Bowie. Councilwoman Diane Polangin (Dist. 2) said nearby nature centers like the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel provide opportunities for children to interact with nature.
“I understand that they would like to do this, but I don’t see the necessity of it,” she said.
Sherita Williams, a Bowie mother of two, said she thinks a natural exploration area would be popular among Bowie families. Williams said she often discourages her children from playing in the woods because of the possibility of ticks and other hazards, and that the nearby nature centers don’t offer the same kind of free-play option a natural recreation area would.
“Patuxent Wildlife Center is right down the road, but it’s not really [conducive] to letting the kids explore with their own imaginations out with the elements. It’s more a class-based structure,” she said.
Despite some hesitation by the Bowie council, Mummert said she is optimistic the idea will gain momentum, and that the city will work the project into an upcoming budget.
“This is fitting in with the idea that we need to be addressing environmental issues with young families and young kids,” she said. “Certainly it’s the way a lot of the county is moving and the state is moving.”